Home Food A Bit of Local Farm History – Oswego County Today

A Bit of Local Farm History – Oswego County Today

by Atlanta Business Journal
Anthony Leotta, seen here in the garden at his family’s farm on the Chase Road, has many memories of how crops were grown years ago.

Written By Jim Farfaglia

Earlier this summer, I took a cross-country road trip and got to see miles and miles of America’s farmland. As I marveled at the mammoth cultivators and irrigation systems that make the production of our food possible, I couldn’t help thinking of the way folks used to farm and how lucky I am to have grown up with relatives who grew vegetables for a living.

My maternal grandparents and two of my uncles devoted their lives to farming—the old-fashioned way. Recently I talked with Anthony Leotta, the last surviving child of John and Nellie Leotta, who purchased a farm on Chase Road in 1936. Anthony’s older brother, Joe, who married my mother’s sister, ran the farm his whole life.

After Joe died, in 1988, Anthony continued to own the former farm and that’s where he and I met one Sunday afternoon, under a shade tree, to talk about the Leotta farm’s history. “The main source of income at the farm was derived from crops grown on muckland,” Anthony began.

Muckland, a unique type of farming in Central New York, is the result of glaciers that passed through this area during the Ice Age. Those glaciers left depressions in our region’s earth, which filled with water and then, over thousands of years, dead vegetation collected on the bottom. These became murky swamps and beginning in the late 1800s, innovative Central New York farmers discovered that by draining those swamps, rich organic material remained. Anthony explained more about the Leotta muck.

“The muckland consisted of 12 acres of well-drained black soil with several ditches dug by my father and brother, by hand. Crops grown on the muckland were onions, celery, Boston lettuce, Iceberg lettuce, Romaine lettuce, carrots and spinach.”

Not all farmland in our region is muck. The Leottas also had “upland,” and certain crops grew better there: “tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, cauliflower, corn and asparagus,” according to Anthony. We associate those tasty foods with summertime, but to provide them farmers must work year round.

“My father would activate our small greenhouse in mid-February,” Anthony explained. “He would prepare trays of soil consisting of mixed muck and upland dirt, then sow celery seeds. By March he started planting pepper and eggplant seeds and then tomato seeds around April 1.”

To assure those seeds’ success, John carried pails of water from the family house to water the greenhouse plants. He cut wood and stoked the stove, day and night, to maintain sufficient heat in the greenhouse. Along with his hard work, John had help. Anthony shared memories of his family’s team of horses, which were included in the 1936 purchase of the farm.

“Known as Jack & Jill, they were harnessed together to plow muckland. To navigate on the muck without sinking, the horses were equipped with steel horseshoes. They pulled a single wood-handled steel plow steered by my father.”

Those loyal horses gave way to motor-driven machinery in 1939, when the Leottas bought an 18-horsepower 9N Ford tractor. How well Anthony recalled the details of that important innovation in farm equipment.

“The new tractor was painted a sparkling light grey and was [equipped] with a single- furrow plow, a double- row disc and a 3-row upland cultivator. The tractor’s motor was a gas fueled 4-cylinder flat head, with starter, and operated by a 6-volt battery. Gasoline to operate the new tractor cost 11 cents per gallon in 1939. Originally, muck seeding and cultivating were done by single-row planters and cultivators. Weeding and “blocking” lettuce was done on hands and knees, three rows at a time. After World War II, Bolens came out with a gas-powered three-row planter and cultivator, but weeding continued to be done on hands and knees.”

Efforts of man, beast and machine produced results. “Early lettuce crops were usually ready for harvesting by June 15,” Anthony said. “During the 1930s, buyers representing wholesale markets in New York City or Boston would visit our farm to purchase lettuce. [It would be] packed in light wooden crates stamped ‘NYC’ or ‘Boston.’ Crates of lettuce were also sold to the U.S. government during World War II. All were delivered in our 1934 Ford stake rack truck to the D.L.& W. Railroad depot in Fulton. A check would be mailed to my parents if the produce was sold. If not, no check was received. Sale of produce was at the mercy of wholesale houses.”

When Anthony mentioned harvesting the farm’s onion crop in late August or early September, I had no trouble visualizing the task of cutting the tops off each onion and dropping them into a wooden crate. Topping onions was my first job, at age 11, and each crate earned me 10 cents, which was good money. Better yet, I learned the value of hard work.

Following World War II, demand for muckland lettuce dropped off dramatically and it became necessary for farmers with small mucks to find other ways to sell produce. The Leottas found two winning ways. First was at a Syracuse farmers market.

“In 1947, my father and brother Joe began traveling to the Central New York Regional Market,” Anthony explained. “There they sold lettuce, celery, carrots and many upland vegetables six days a week. In 1950, I began driving the 1947 Ford stake rack truck and accompanying my father John to the Regional Market. I continued this until 1955, when I completed my studies at SU.”

This Leotta farm history triggered another memory: the Saturday morning my Uncle Joe woke me up at 4am to help him sell produce at the Syracuse Market. I was in third grade and math came easy for me, so Uncle let me serve customers and make change. I was so proud! As a reward, we stopped at Heid’s on the way home—I felt like I’d really earned that hotdog.

But thanks to another way the Leottas sold vegetables, Oswego County folks didn’t need to drive to Syracuse. Throughout the summer, farm stands could be found on many country roads, including Chase Road, where Anthony’s mother, Nellie, managed the family’s stand under their maple tree.

“Vegetables were stored on the front porch,” Anthony explained, “and my mom would come out and greet most buyers at the stand. All items were priced less than a dollar, depending on size and quantities.”

Today, there’s not a lot you can buy for a dollar, and you can bet Nellie was generous in her portions. Once home, a slice of beef or chicken, a loaf of homemade bread and you’d have yourself a satisfying supper.

Unfortunately, you won’t find many local muck farms today. Due to the 1964 Forever Wild Act in New York State, draining swamps to create muck farms is no longer allowed. Many small family-owned muck farms, like the Leotta’s, have returned to swamplands.

As we wrapped up our talk, Anthony, who keeps a small garden on his family’s farm, showed me a 100-year-old hoe that he still uses for eliminating weeds. I believe him when he says “it’s the best tool” he’s ever had. At 88½ years old, Anthony is very proud of the tradition of growing a garden on the old family farm.

Photo caption: Anthony Leotta, seen here in the garden at his family’s farm on the Chase Road, has many memories of how crops were grown years ago.

Print this entry

Related Articles